Wednesday, July 20, 2016

90 hour weekend with B

Last weekend, my dear friend and antique house mate B finally decided to visit me in LA, and it was GRAND. Here follows a brief, blow by blow description of the utterly banal and forgettable weekend we enjoyed together. My primary mission was, by example and through song and story, to infect B with the Californian Dream.

On Thursday evening, B arrived from Seattle. Rather than head straight to hot pot, he dallied at the airport, so we were mostly full and about to admit defeat (after 90 minutes) when B showed up. He re-energized us and after only 3.5 hours stirring the soup we paid the bill and crawled away on our stomachs, snail style. 

The following morning, Friday, I apologized for not having any milk, so we enjoyed our breakfast in the traditional style. Depression flakes - cornflakes and tap water. A great way to start the day, if you like things to improve rapidly after breakfast, no matter what. I mentioned we could probably grab some milk later that day but - spoiler alert - milk was never obtained.

I took off for work, B's aunt C showed up and took him to Ventura beach, and we met again at 3pm at JPL. There we were joined by my friend D, who works on lab, and the four of us (B, C, D, and I) took off for a quick tour through the lab. I have, of course, taken the same tour numerous times but it's always a pleasure to look at the robots, visit the control room, look longingly at lucky peanuts, and kick rocks in the Mars Yard. It has mostly returned to normal since "The Martian" came out, but plenty of Juno-related paraphernalia is still in evidence.

B, C, and I headed back to my place, where recharging of phone and mind and body was called for. I took a quick call to Antarctica, while B and C jumped on my piano and played several four hands pieces they mysteriously carried the music for, apparently, everywhere they go. I came back out and we all sang some stuff together, which was grand. I miss the social creation of music. At this point the sun began to set so we gathered our peace offerings, farewelled aunty C, and headed off for a birthday party at my friend M's place. 

M is a paragliding astrophysicist polyglot, so we knew we would fit right in. M had only been in town for about 2 months, so it was a small gathering of her 50 closest friends, many of whom spoke mainly Spanish, and all had good stories. Later in the evening, round with excellent food, we set up a telescope to examine Mars, Saturn, and the Moon, before gathering around my printed copy of the SUMS song book and singing about 6 verses of Gaudete, a carol with improvised interstitial verses. Late in the evening we took in the guitar circle, faded, and headed home for some well earned rest.

The following morning was Saturday, so we decided to take it easy. By getting up early, travelling to a nearby workshop, and building me a dining table from scratch. After only 4 hours of finicky work, a couple of mistakes, and numerous design regrets, the assembly was basically done. Now only remains the finishing touches. We had pushed lunch back so we headed home, cleaned up a bit, and headed to a local restaurant where I enjoyed vegan (dairy free) pancakes.

Following this we headed to rendezvous with friends DA and L, with whom we enjoyed a second lunch. DA described the intersection of attractor theory and the microbiome. L ordered a vodka/grapefruit, but got the relative quantities reversed. B talked about materials with weird thermal and magnetic properties. I talked about spaceships, for a change. At some point we went for a walk, covered solar power, desalination, and the space nuclear imperative. Later, we got a ride in a fast electric car back to campus, where there were Pokemon to hunt. 

We took it easy for an hour, enjoying a relaxed campus tour, before meeting friends J and C for dinner at the Caltech Atheneum Rathskeller Al Fresco, where I enjoyed bacon-wrapped meatloaf and B struggled to meet the demands of a nachos of truly biblical proportions. J and C regaled us with tales of boating down the Mekong river before bailing as the night chill settled over the desert we call home.

We headed west for the next event, but were waylaid by the intercession of an amazing music concert on the Beckman Lawn: Muse-ique. It turned out our friends N, R, and G were performing, so we sat with family and friends (D, C, etc) and enjoyed the incredible performance. Mostly 20th century jazz music in all kinds of varieties. 

When Muse-ique drew to a close, C, B, and I went to a karaoke bar in downtown, near where I work. The room was loud and full of friends, for dear friend H was celebrating her birthday, and all of us are huge musical theater geeks. In addition to numerous other positive traits, B possesses an exquisite tenor range and we "rocked out" until they closed us down. Friends K and T took a vote and decided that B was not to be allowed to leave for Australia. We headed home and quickly passed out, after a quiet, relaxing Saturday.

Sunday. Last full day of B's visit. Still so much to do! The clouds were clearing so we headed to the airport, clambered into the trusty Cessna 152 in which I did much of my training, and took to the skies. A quick jaunt south through the haze, over Long Beach, and across the channel to Catalina Island. A flight around the island, then up to the middle and, dodging scudding clouds, to land at the airport in the sky. 

Our first and biggest mistake was to assume it was too early for lunch, so we took a stroll around the airport, had a good chat, and returned to find we no longer had time to survive the queue, eat lunch, and get back on time. At least the plane was much lighter, we cruised back to El Monte in style, bouncing between mid afternoon bumps before executing a nice glided landing on the airstrip. 

Once home we did kick back for a few minutes. I did some laundry, we watched some silly videos, went shopping at Whole Foods (ever seen a vegetarian's eyes the first time they go there?), and cooked dinner. We finished our dinner, of sweet potato quesadillas, just in time to go to the local cinema and catch Ghostbusters with some of my former Caltech colleagues. B and I giggled and guffawed throughout, though I thought the spookiest part was how much the ghostbuster Erin looked like my fiance C once looked. Brown hair and MIT jacket. Uncanny!

On our way walking back from the cinema, I was livestreaming the SpaceX CRS-9 launch on my phone, when the internet cut out, mere minutes from liftoff. Fortunately we were walking past my friend T's house, so I gave them a call.

"Hi, Casey here, what are you doing?"
"Watching the SpaceX launch, duh."
"We'll be there in 3 seconds."

We caught the launch, including the incredible landing. Then B and T got stuck into a 30 minute discussion of the minutiae of knitting, before meeting a pet snake, sampling Indian food, and heading back. 

Time to sleep? Think again! We headed back to M's place for more guitar and music, arriving just in time to eat a bunch of apple pie and icecream, contribute some chocolate brownies, and leave again. We walked about an hour back to my place through Pasadena, then finally took rest!

Monday, last day. We took the train and walked into my work, a substantial hike with luggage in the hot sun. I gave B the "revolutionizing the manufacturing of transportation infrastructure" tour, fed him some of our amazing lunch, then sent him off to do a downtown LA walking tour and explore The Last Bookstore. Some hours later he arrived back, rather footsore. I called a Lyft, we said our farewells, then I got back to solving PDEs. 

Later, I heard he had successfully boarded an aircraft, because the Hyperloop still isn't built, and was on his way home. 90 hours had elapsed since he bounced into the hot pot restaurant and helped us in our hour of dire need. I think we shared a decent sample of what southern California has to offer, and I (and all my distraught friends!) can't wait to have him visit again!

Monday, July 4, 2016

Illustrating Mathematics at ICERM

Last week it was my singular pleasure to be invited to a workshop on illustrating mathematics, an area that has been revolutionized by relatively recent innovations in 3D printing!
The conference was held in Providence, Rhode Island, at ICERM, a part of Brown. I flew into nearby Boston the previous Saturday, explored the city, caught up with friends, and acclimated to the new time zone. The following day I took the Amtrak to Providence, wandered through the town, and found my hotel.

By the time I booked my room, the conference hotel was full, so I was given a place at the Providence Biltmore. I was planning to couch surf, but it was part of the deal, so I had to deal with a 4 room suite. The kitchen seemed to lack mood lighting. Later, I found another 3 rooms and ordered some kitchen kit for cooking. They delivered about 6 saucepans, but had to go back for cutlery. Lucky I didn't ask for plates!

The next day I went and checked in. Surrounded by lots of unfamiliar people from unfamiliar places and all of them topologists of one form or another. I hadn't really done hardcore (sort of) algebra since undergrad days, so it took some getting used to. That afternoon I mapped a Rubik's cube, though, so I was back in the game.

There was an adjoining room full of everyone's 3D printed creations. Some people printed hinges, hyperbolic surfaces of every kind, non-orientable surfaces, and organic-looking surfaces. Some people had knitted non-trivial topologies, which was an interesting exercise in patching. My fiance C knew (only) 5 (of the 50ish) participants so I had fun meeting more people. One of them, F, had a successful kickstarter to buy a $100,000 knitting machine, with which she makes the most outrageous knitted stuff. My favourite was the cellular automata - networks governed by simple rules which can, in some special cases, do computation!

One evening, A and I were walking the streets of Providence looking for restaurants and we found Big Nazo labs, a creature/performance shop, full of all kinds of monster puppet type things! Quite strange but an interesting counterpoint to the day's adventures in pure mathematical thought. We also had an opportunity to visit the bio lab of RISD - the Rhode Island School of Design, which had an incredible collection of interesting forms used as inspiration for the architects etc in training there.

F, D and I explored the John Brown house, a museum on the site of one of the grandest mansions of the colonial/independence time period in providence, which had a great audio tour and all kinds of interesting stuff in there. The Brown family was, for the vast majority of the time, involved in the "Indian Trade", which is a euphemism for dealing in people - slavery. We thought it was interesting how the audio tour took its time to get to that aspect of the story, but when it did it went into some detail.

I live tweeted much of the workshop, never missing an opportunity to drop some terrible puns! On Thursday the non-speaking members of the conference were given an opportunity to speak for 4 minutes each. So I decided to focus on just one thing and do it well. I talked about the mathematics of music (1.5^12=2^7, roughly) and how you could encode single step transitions between chords into a biperiodic map, which can be printed on the surface of a torus, which I made into a ring. Amusingly, it was at about this point that Shapeways gave up on printing my often extremely finicky models and I had to switch to i.Materialise, something the audience found quite funny!

On Friday, I infiltrated the physics department at Brown, as part of a strategic job investigation strategy. Well, I made it to the foyer of the right building. On summer break it was pretty empty. I saw a fellow walking over and, not having any idea which department or type he was, asked where the physics grad students hang out. I took some pains to emphasize that I wasn't a crazy person, and it turned out to be one of the professors of the physics department, Savvas Koushiappas, who generously answered all my questions for about 20 minutes, at which point one of his recent doctors dropped by to hand over an autographed thesis copy. Savvas told me a bit about how Cooper, of superconductor and semiconductor theory fame, was at Brown, whose physics department dates from about the time of the inverse square law. Fascinating!

Friday afternoon the conference ended, we all anti-diffused back to our respective homes, and I to my hotel. The following morning I checked out and trained back to Boston, where I met yet more friends - this time a bunch of fellow expats, spoke my native tongue, and eventually wound up at the Boston Science Museum, where I spent a pleasant afternoon looking at frogs, spiders, and model ships. There's also some really cool Tesla coils there.

From there I walked to South Station, got to the airport, worked, ate, boarded a plane, and set off for home. The flight back was notable only for containing about 95% of the most antisocial fellow passengers I've ever encountered. I couldn't quite believe the extent to which about 20 passengers somehow managed to get up during take off, "crutch" off every seat as they constantly traipsed back and forth to the bathroom, took up space, time, made their discomfort everyone else's problem, and even shook the seats of sleeping (and previously screamy) children, even when asked specifically not to. The one next to me waited 4 hours until I fell asleep to wake me up to go to the bathroom, pissing off the flight attendant, waking up a sleeping family, and then doing it all again on his way back 10 minutes later. I couldn't wait to jump into LA traffic! How do we create a cultural meme of not being terrible at air travel, and enforce it? It would be 100x more pleasant for everyone if people just followed some basic guidelines, summed up by "be mindful about not being a selfish jerk". I wrote a script that performed surface minimization, then realized that what I really wanted was curvature minimization. Whoops! I will have to normalize by volume.

Fortunately I was back home safe and sound by about 1:20am, unpacked and asleep shortly thereafter! I never had any idea that my little hobby work with 3D printing work would ever lead to anything quite this exciting. But, overall, it's led to quite a lot of interesting stuff, including this incredible opportunity to meet and collaborate with so many amazing people! So my advice is to follow your interests and see where they end up!